I’ve personally taste-tested a variety of achiote paste substitutes to find the best one for every cooking occasion. Whether you’re on the hunt for the closest flavor match, in need of a last-minute pantry substitute, or want a swap that fits your diet, I’ve got the answers.
If you can’t find achiote paste, you can make your own at home. There are several recipes, but an easy one is, 3 tbsp paprika, 2 tbsp white vinegar, 2 tsp dried Mexican oregano, 4 cloves minced garlic, and 1/2 tsp ground cumin. This makes 1/4 cup of paste.
I made small batches of pollo pibil (achiote marinated chicken) to test out several different achiote paste substitutes.
Achiote paste is a spice mix that acts as a flavoring and coloring agent in Mexican, Central American, and Caribbean cuisines. It is made with a blend of annatto seeds, cumin, pepper, coriander, oregano, cloves, and garlic. The overall flavor is nutty, with a hint of heat and smokiness.
Its flavor and coloring properties are pretty unique, but I managed to find a few decent alternatives. Here are the substitutes I tested and my verdicts:
|Substitutes||How to Substitute||Verdict|
|Homemade achiote paste||Need annatto seeds||10/10|
|Makeshift “achiote paste”||Easy ingredients||9/10|
|Sazon seasoning||Mild flavor||7/10|
|Paprika + turmeric + saffron + cumin||Earthy and red||8/10|
|Tomato paste + spices||Okay in a pinch||6/10|
|Natural food coloring||Just for color||5/10|
Psst… if you haven’t checked your local Mexican grocery store for achiote powder yet, do this before looking for a substitute. They will normally stock it.
Homemade achiote paste
Nothing beats the flavor of homemade achiote paste. And luckily making this vibrant condiment from scratch is easier than you think. The first thing to do is gather all the ingredients. You might already have some of them stocked, like peppercorns and dried oregano, and most of them are easy to find if you haven’t.
But one of the crucial ingredients is annatto seeds, which aren’t commonly used in American cuisine, so they can be harder to source. Fresh seeds are always the best, but you can also use ground annatto if you can’t find them.
Then you simply grind and mix everything together.
Psst… the best thing about making your own paste is that you can customize it. I always add a touch more garlic.
How to substitute: Replace store-bought achiote paste in a 1:1 ratio with your homemade achiote paste.
Makeshift “achiote paste”
Does grinding and blending spices sound like too much effort for you, or could you not find any annatto seeds? In that case, this quick and easy achiote substitute from Kevin is Cooking is the way to go.
The 5-minute recipe involves mixing Mexican oregano, paprika, white vinegar, minced garlic cloves, and cumin together. The paprika brings a vibrant red color to make sure you don’t miss the annatto seeds.
I felt this makeshift paste didn’t have quite the same earthiness as the real deal, but the convenience aspect more than made up for this.
How to substitute: replace achiote paste in a 1:1 ratio with makeshift “achiote paste”.
Sazon seasoning is a commercial blend of spices that features ground annatto seeds, coriander, garlic, and cumin – all ingredients you’d usually find in achiote paste! So it’s no surprise that this spice blend shares those familiar earthy notes (although the flavor isn’t exactly the same and it’s a lot more subtle).
The other major difference is in texture. Sazon seasoning is a powder instead of a paste. But this doesn’t have to be a problem! You can still mix it straight into sauces, use it as a dry rub for meat, or mix it with water to make a paste. Or better yet with bitter orange juice, the liquid used in achiote paste.
How to substitute: replace achiote paste with 2 tbsp Sazon seasoning.
Paprika + turmeric + saffron + cumin
Didn’t like the sound of the ‘makeshift’ spice blend I went through above? Here’s another option. According to Robin from Allways Delicious, you can get away with mixing 2 tablespoons of paprika, 2 teaspoons of turmeric, 1 teaspoon of saffron, and 1 teaspoon of ground cumin.
This wasn’t an exact flavor match with the real deal. But it had major earthy notes and a familiar rich, red color. The reason I’ve recommended the other option first is because this recipe uses saffron, which isn’t a pantry staple and isn’t the cheapest ingredient to get hold of.
How to substitute: replace ⅜ cup achiote paste with 2 tbsp paprika + 2 tbsp turmeric + 1 tsp saffron + 1 tsp ground cumin.
Tomato paste + spices
We’re veering away from achiote paste here, but in a pinch, you can whip up a makeshift paste with basic kitchen items like tomato paste, oregano, garlic powder, and cumin.
I recommend using an equal amount of tomato paste and mixing in a pinch of each spice. You can then taste the mixture and see if you think it needs more of anything, I added a touch more cumin.
The cumin brings the familiar earthy notes you’d usually get with the annatto, but the flavor isn’t as prominent. And the tomato paste is responsible for bringing that vibrant red color, but it also adds a slight sour tang.
To balance the extra sourness, I reduced the amount of lime juice in my pollo pibil recipe.
How to substitute: Replace achiote paste in a 1:1 ratio with this tomato paste and spices mixture.
Natural food colorings
“Sometimes, achiote paste is used simply to add color rather than flavor. In this case, you can swap it out for any other red ingredient.
Options include saffron, beetroot powder, ground turmeric, hibiscus powder, or paprika. If you don’t mind using something synthetic, you could even go with straight red food coloring.
Of course, you can mix any of these ingredients with a pinch of cumin and oregano if you feel they need some flavor, but it’s not a necessity.
How to substitute: Replace achiote paste in a 1:1 ratio with your chosen red ingredient.
Substitutes to Avoid
I encountered loads of suggestions for achiote paste substitutes, but not all of them worked out.
Several sites were suggesting things like harissa or sambal oelek. These are chili pastes and MUCH spicier than achiote with completely different flavor profiles. While they tasted good with my chicken, the resulting dish didn’t resemble pollo pibil.
Other suggestions included individual spices like cumin or chili powder. I don’t recommend this either because you’ll just overwhelm the dish with one flavor instead of reproducing the depth of flavor achiote has.
Best Achiote Paste Substitutes + What to Avoid
- ¼ cup annatto seeds
- 1 tbsp coriander seeds
- 1 tbsp dried oregano
- 1 tsp cumin seeds
- 1 tsp black peppercorns
- 2 whole cloves
- 1 tsp kosher salt
- 5 cloves of garlic
- ½ cup bitter orange juice
- Combine the annatto, coriander seeds, oregano, cumin seeds, peppercorns, and cloves in a spice grinder or a mortar and pestle. Grind into a powder.
- Transfer the ground spices in a blender and add in the salt, garlic, and bitter orange. Blitz until it forms a smooth paste.
- Use immediately or store your achiote paste in an airtight container.